Duke Ellington’s music lives to be heard

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It’s no big thing to play the music of Duke Ellington. That’s done all the time: in cabarets, concert halls, movies, Broadway theaters and anywhere jazz musicians assemble. Ellingtonia, a word coined by admirers who realized that no existing musical category could contain him, is virtually inexhaustible: some 2,000 pieces, many in multiple versions and settings, often to the point of recomposed variations.

Overall, he offers the modern musician those qualities that never wilt, from lavishly distinctive melodies to the richest harmonic palette in jazz or popular music to a rhythmic variety, reminding us that swing is infinitely supple and can be as uplifting, witty, fierce or romantic as a good tune.

So the Pacific Symphony’s decision to devote much of its program in this week’s American Composers Festival to Ellington is an easy and welcome call. The difficulty is in electing which of his mansions to visit and how to escape the long shadow of his recordings, which are frequently definitive and almost always inimitable.


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The inimitability is a good incentive. Unable to do it his way, you have to find your own way. The challenge reflects Ellington’s unique relationship to scores.

If his popular songs — “Sophisticated Lady,” “Mood Indigo,” “Come Sunday,” dozens more — can be accessed through sheet music, his instrumental music, with its shifting, growling, purring sonorities, is more elusive.

When Ellington organized his band in the 1920s, orchestrating techniques were far from standardized, but prevailing styles separated the ensemble into sections. The trumpets, trombones and reeds stuck together as units, playing off one another in call-and-response fashion, while the rhythm section provided a pulsing foundation. Ellington violated that scheme with ingenious blends that made audiences gasp and musicians shake their heads in wonder.

André Previn famously said, “Stan Kenton can stand in front of a thousand fiddles and a thousand brass and make a dramatic gesture and every studio arranger can nod his head and say, ‘Oh, yes, that’s done like this.’ But Duke merely lifts a finger, three horns make a sound, and I don’t know what it is.”

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Previn probably had in mind the theme chorus of “Mood Indigo” (1930), which Ellington tautly arranged for a trumpet with straight mute, a trombone with plunger mute and a clarinet voiced lower than the brasses. Today, that qualifies as Arranging 101, but anyone who thinks Ellington old hat is advised to study “Daybreak Express” (1933), which is rarely performed (though Ellington’s record is not to be missed) because no one has figured out precisely how he got his reeds to replicate the sounds of a steam whistle.

During rehearsals and over time, Ellington made so many alterations in his scoring that, frequently, the only complete score was made after the fact, transcribed from a recording. Even when the score was accurately notated, the most distinctive aspect of his music, the timbres and styles of his musicians, could not be reproduced. Ellington did not compose for instruments but rather for specific players who gave him years, decades — in some instances, their entire careers.

In that sense, his music is more like movies than theater. There can never be a definitive Hamlet; each generation finds its own. But despite remakes and sequels, there is only one Rhett and Scarlet, one Ninotchka, one Don Corleone.

Similarly, each generation produces interpreters of the Beethoven sonatas, but a musician who attempts to re-create the singular qualities of such Ellington stalwarts as Johnny Hodges or Cootie Williams will be at best an impersonator and at worst a vandal. Ellington understood the parameters of individuality. For the original record of “Take the ‘A’ Train,” Ray Nance improvised a trumpet solo so perfectly framed that it became as customary a part of the band’s later performances as the written theme. When Nance left the orchestra (after 23 years), Cootie Williams inherited the solo. He played Nance’s notes but in a style indisputably his own.

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There’s another way in which Ellington’s music is like the movies: it’s prohibitively expensive to perform as he wrote it. The great irony of big band music is that it flourished during the Great Depression and faded in the Age of Affluence.


Today’s jazz orchestras are as dependent on grants, subscriptions and gifts as philharmonic orchestras. The well-funded Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, which probably plays more Ellington than any ensemble other than the one that bears his name, could not survive on ticket sales. Yet because it has endured for more than two decades, under Wynton Marsalis’ leadership and with a relatively stable personnel, it has the experience to do Ellington justice.

This music is hard to play. When the American Jazz Orchestra, with which I was associated, recorded an Ellington album in the 1980s, the conductor John Lewis booked the orchestra into a jazz club so that, in addition to the afternoon rehearsals, it could perform the selections a dozen times before entering the recording studio.

Small bands and singers continue to perform Ellington’s songs but not the opulent arrangements that are the DNA of his genius. Several conductors, including Simon Rattle, Daniel Barenboim and Maurice Peress, have performed Ellington’s symphonic elaborations but often lack the rhythmic flexibility and fitting soloists to deliver satisfying accounts.

These issues will be addressed, inadvertently or deliberately, as Carl St.Clair’s Pacific Symphony, in conjunction with the current Duke Ellington Orchestra, performs a concert of music by Ellington and the contemporary composer and saxophonist Daniel Schnyder at its 13th American Composers Festival.

Schnyder’s selections include his arrangement of Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood” (1935), which begins with the same pentatonic phrase that opens George Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me” but in the minor mode and topped with a note held for five beats against a moving harmony.

The Duke Ellington Orchestra’s six selections traverse the length of his career, from “Creole Love Call” (1927), which employed wordless vocalizing as part of the orchestration, to the final movement of the ballet “Three Black Kings,” written as Ellington lay on his deathbed, in 1974, and completed by his son, Mercer Ellington. The last of Ellington’s many musical portraits of heroic black figures is a gospel waltz in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Its guileless riffs and backbeat rhythm achieve a sublimely understated power.


The selections also include the most famous pieces by Ellington’s aide de camp, Billy Strayhorn: “Take the ‘A’ Train,” composed during the 1941 ASCAP strike, when the airwaves boycotted Ellington’s ASCAP compositions, and “Satin Doll,” an unlikely smash hit that kept the orchestra afloat in 1953, when most big bands went the way of ballrooms and jitterbugging. The program also will include the anthem “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” (1932), three years before the swing era) and “Caravan” (1936), in which Ellington applied Middle Eastern scales and contrary rhythms to a melody by his Puerto Rican trombonist Juan Tizol.

Ellington’s immense discography is one of the momentous achievements of the last century, but live performances and new interpretations will keep his music vital in the centuries to come.

Giddins is executive director of the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His most recent book is “Warning Shadows: Home Alone With Classic Cinema.”


American Composers Festival


What: Pacific Symphony and the Duke Ellington Orchestra, with saxophonist Daniel Schnyder

When: 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday

What: “Duke Ellington Revealed,” Pacific Symphony and the Duke Ellington Orchestra

When: 3 p.m. Sunday

What: “Faust,” a film and music project by Daniel Schnyder

Where: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa

When: 7 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $25 to $185 (varies by concert)

Information: (714) 755-5788 or